Flying High

When asked to name my favourite scientist from the book, I usually go for Saul Griffith. Ilon Musk will probably ensure that Griffith will not take the title of the Da Vinci/Edison of our generation but he’s certainly got some claims on the title.

Griffith’s big problem however, is that he’s better at inventing things than seeing them through to completion. He’s too busy getting on with the next idea. His most famous idea, of glasses that could bring site to much of the developing world was also invented around the same time by Oxford physics professor Joshua Silver and it is Silver’s version that seems to be taking off. It’s possible this is because it was in some way superior, but my impression is that Silver stuck with it, while Griffith moved on. (BTW, this New York Times article told me the great Louis Alvarez had a different way to reach the same outcome which is now being developed in the Netherlands).

That’s fine when someone else does do the same thing – I doubt Griffith minds too much whether it is his design that makes the difference as long as a billion people get to see clearly. It’s more of a problem if no one else will make it happen in your absence.

Griffith is also one of the pioneers of the idea of producing electricity from kites, tapping into the stronger and more consistent winds at high altitudes. Again he is not the only one with this concept, but the idea is sufficiently hard to make practical that its a very good idea to have several teams in the field working on it, as not all are likely to succeed.

Last night I thought I would check up on how Makani, Griffith’s company to develop the idea was going. Turns out, that very day, Makani had been bought by GoogleX, who had previously been the main source of venture capital. This means we will probably hear less about how it is going for a while, since it won’t need to promote itself to get more funds. However, it also means this is unlikely to be an idea that dies for lack of development. The price is unknown, but it almost certainly runs into the tens of millions, and Google would not have done that if they didn’t think the potential was huge, and had plans to make it happen.

One of Makani's test kites

One of Makani’s test kites

We can’t afford to wait around for some exciting new technology like power-generating kites before installing renewable energy. Moreover, it is possible some of the smaller innovations that come out of having a relatively mature wind industry could be applied to the kite version, thus increasing its viability, but any time you feel inclined to despair about the fight against climate change it is good to know things like this are out there, the big question is whether they can arrive on time. For that to occur we both need to speed their development – now in Google’s hands, and I can’t think of a better place – and slow the rush towards destruction, something which requires all hands on deck.

Slightly tangentially, Alister Air pointed me to this really interesting article about survivor bias. Griffith strikes me as the exemplar of the sort of person the article describes as likely to be successful – someone who can shake off small failures and keep trying. Griffith said something similar to me when I interviewed him, “I have a very poor memory for failure.” He sees this as having allowed him to try hundreds of different designs that didn’t work before hitting on one that did. Note however, that the fact that he has a poor memory for failure does not stop him learning when things don’t work out.

Oh and just by the way – Griffith is still not 40.

Update: I only just discovered that Makani’s co-founder died tragically at 38 late last year, which may explain why the company was sold to Google. Depending on who you read it is hard to tell whether Griffith or Harddman was the prime mover behind Makani, but this is clearly a terrible, terrible loss.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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